Dievole's blog

The Palio of Siena, the world’s most famous horse race

The Palio of Siena is one of the most famous horseracing events in the world, remaining an important and vital part of Sienese culture for centuries. The Palio is held twice a year, on July 2 and August 16, when horses are raced around the town’s medieval piazza del Campo, but the Palio is much more than a race – it’s an important focus of Sienese culture year-round. As a visitor, witnessing the race firsthand is a unique privilege to be appreciated and respected. This article provides a brief history of the Palio di Siena and an insight into some of its unique traditions.

Palio of Siena: a brief history

The origins of the Palio of Siena date to the 12th century, though the race was somewhat different then: it was first held in the city’s narrow streets, and run with buffalos and later with donkeys. The first documented modern Palio, using horses, was in 1656. At the beginning there were 59 contrade, or districts of Siena. Now the city is made up of 17 contrade, with 10 participating in the race. Each rider represents his contrada and rides bareback. Rivalry is fierce.

Palio di Siena
The Palio photographed by Valentina Dainelli – toomuchtuscany.com

The Palio is run twice each year: on July 2 it is called the Palio di Provenzano, in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano. The Palio held on August 16 is called the Palio dell’Assunta in honor of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Siena’s Piazza del Campo is transformed into a racetrack with dirt covering its herringbone terracotta floor, while the public stands in the middle.

Before the Palio begins, there is a historical parade, or Corteo Storico, that goes through the city with participants dressed in rich medieval costumes. The procession winds its way around the campo with a carefully orchestrated sequence of flag-bearers that represent important elements of the city, both historical and present day. The pages and jockeys of each of the contrade running the race enter, followed by the seven that are excluded that year.

Selection and leading up to the Paio di Siena race

The palio is a festival over four days, with various important steps leading up to race day, including fundraising dinners, religious ceremonies and more.

What is most fascinating is the tradition of how horses are assigned to each participant: the horses do not belong to the contrade themselves but are chosen by the team captains, then assigned by lot. This sets up an interesting balance between competitors, who ride the assigned horse in a series of trials, but have not had years of time with it. Before the race, the jockeys run six trial runs or heats.

Meanwhile, the city is in a state of festival. Buildings are draped with the symbols of their contrade, and a series of large dinners are held in the streets – these are open to the public (tickets being managed by each contrada) and are a wonderful experience for a visitor, where one may well make new friends and taste traditional foods and wine.

The race itself circles Piazza del Campo, where a thick layer of dirt has been laid. The jockeys race bareback three times around the track. The race is fast and usually lasts about 90 seconds. It is common to see jockeys fall off the horse, but the unmounted horse can still finish the race provided it is wearing its headdress and win for its contrada! When this happens it is known as cavallo scosso. The riders are allowed to use their whips on their horses and to disturb other horses and jockeys. Another interesting fact is how the Sienese consider the concept of losing: the worst loser is not the last to complete the race, but the horse and rider who comes in second – clearly, he was not trying hard enough.

Winning the prize

The drapellone, also called palio, which winners hold each year.
This is the drapellone, also called palio, which winners hold each year. Photo: kiki99 on Flickr

Il Palio di Siena is more than a simple horse race. It is a year-round rivalry and competition between contrade. Their aim is to hold the trophy, alternatively called drapellone or palio, an elongated rectangular, hand-painted piece of silk that is different each year. The banner remains with the winner year-round, whereas the structure upon which it hangs, which is topped by a silver plate, is held by the City. It is a huge honor for an artist to make this banner, which follows a rigid set of rules: it must include the insignia of the city and the symbols or colors of the 10 contrade participating in the race as well as the iconography of the Madonna for which the race is named.

This Article has been approved by the Consorzio per la Tutela del Palio, with kind thanks.

Main image courtesy of Valentina Dainelli, at Too Much Tuscany blog